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There are ways, and ways, to embark on a political career, but 26-year-old native Houstonian Melina Padilla probably picked one of the worst in her maiden speech as a candidate for state representative.
When the former aide to Democrat state Representative Jessica Farrar rose to address a recent gathering of District 143 Democratic precinct judges at the Magnolia Multi-Service Center on the east side, no one in the crowd had any inkling she was about to tell them she had gone to the FBI that morning to discuss alleged links between former co-worker and political rival Joe Moreno and the ongoing Hotel Six bribery-conspiracy investigation.
"I've sat through about 8,000 political speeches at these things, and you expect to hear something standard, like how they support Democratic values," says county party chairwoman Sue Schechter, who was in the crowd that Thursday night. "When she started talking, it was like, 'Whoa.' Everything got very quiet, and you know, it's really hard to get a bunch of Democrats to shut up for anything."
Padilla was seeking the group's vote to become the party nominee on the November ballot to replace incumbent Gerard Torres, who had resigned from the state house to take a job with Houston Industries. According to attendees, she first gave a preamble of "there's something you need to know." Padilla recounted a visit by two FBI agents to interview Farrar during last year's legislative session. She then claimed Moreno, who also worked in Farrar's office, had later driven her to an isolated area outside the capitol in Austin, ostensibly to escape FBI surveillance and bugs, where he demanded that she must never tell anyone that the agents had visited Farrar to question her in the Hotel Six bribery-conspiracy probe.
Padilla then went on to inform the stunned precinct judges that she had met with FBI special agent Ron Stern, the architect of the FBI sting that led to the indictment of six current or former city politicos on bribery-conspiracy charges, only that morning. According to Padilla, the FBI's investigation is continuing, and she insinuated the probe might include Farrar and Moreno, both considered products of the now defunct political machine of Ben Reyes. Farrar had worked in Reyes's Houston City Council office, and Moreno worked in several of Ben's campaigns.
Padilla's showstopping speech had little impact on the outcome of the night's business at hand, as the judges voted 143 to place Moreno's name on the ballot as the Democratic candidate for the next legislative term. Because of constitutional requirements, there will also be a special election on the same ballot to elect a state representative to serve out the final months of Torres's term. Moreno will also be listed as a candidate in that contest.
Padilla, now a Houston bank loan officer, justifies her sensational speech and visit to the FBI's Northwest Houston headquarters by claiming she's just a concerned citizen trying to keep the Reyes gang from taking over another political office. Farrar and Moreno both counter that she's a disgruntled former employee with distinct credibility problems of her own.
According to Padilla, before the FBI agents visited Farrar in Austin, Moreno had bagged all the ample Ben Reyes memorabilia from the representative's office and put it in the work area he shared with Padilla. Afterward, the stuff was boxed and taken away. Likewise, recalls Padilla, Reyes's frequent calls to the representative also ceased after the agents' visit.
"Joe told me that Ben believed the agents could plant bugs on anything they touched," says Padilla. After the FBI meeting, on the pretext of picking up laundry, Padilla says Moreno drove her to an isolated parking lot. After they both walked a distance, she claims he warned her never to mention Reyes's name in the office, her home or auto for fear that conversations might be intercepted.
Padilla says she decided to visit FBI headquarters before the meeting of precinct judges to confirm that the men Moreno had told her were government agents actually came from the FBI. According to her, Stern and another agent asked her about activities involving Reyes and explained that the probe was continuing.
"They said that because they're preparing for retrial in September that they are still in a gathering stage of further investigations of people that were previously investigated, as well as any new information they might come up with."
Padilla also says she and agents discussed occurrences in Farrar's office that pointed to links among the representative, Moreno and Reyes.
"During my recollections of how the office operated, they kept saying 'That's very Ben,' " says Padilla. "They're very interested in the fact that Mr. Moreno has sought a political office now when he was basically Ben's protege, and he has the same feelings as to what the office can do for him as Ben did."
Two weeks before the precinct judges' meeting, Padilla says, she decided to contest Moreno for the nomination because, "as a Hispanic, I'm tired of people looking upon Hispanic politicians as being nothing but crooks with an open hand to the biggest pocketbooks."